They’ll return to Camp Randall this weekend, Civil War soldiers who have seen so much in the last four years.
They’ll camp together one last time, share stories of the things they’ve seen, return their uniforms and pick up their final pay.
And then, in a slightly different twist from their forebears 150 years earlier, they’ll get in their cars and go home.
On Saturday, the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs is presenting “Return to Camp Randall” to commemorate not just the end of the Civil War but how it ended in the camp that had trained, fed and housed 70,000 of the more than 80,000 Wisconsin soldiers who served in the Union Army.
The event is designed to commemorate the return of all Wisconsin soldiers but is based on a documented program that celebrated the return of the 6th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment on July 16, 1865.
“When they came back there were speeches, reception, a meal provided, they received their final paychecks,” said Kevin Hampton, curator of history at the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. “It’s really neat to read the accounts of these soldiers who realize they’re home, that they’re done, that it’s over.”
Saturday’s event includes the dedication of a monument to the soldiers who served, a 10-foot obelisk that sits beside a cannon on a hilltop on the Camp Randall park grounds.
The iconic Camp Randall arch, erected in 1912, already serves as a memorial, but its construction was spearheaded by veterans groups.
“They dedicated it to themselves,” Hampton said.
John Scocos, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs, wanted to erect a monument to recognize Wisconsin troops’ role in the Civil War at Camp Randall, and the result is the obelisk that also recognizes the 150th anniversary of the end of the war.
“The nation didn’t do much, and that’s kind of a shame,” Michael Telzrow, director of the Wisconsin Veterans Museum, said of the sesquicentennial. “We did an exhibit here that we ran for three years about Wisconsin’s role in the last 2½ years in the war, but we thought it would be nice to do something public.”
Back to camp
Those who know that Camp Randall is more than a football stadium also know that it was a place where soldiers trained before they headed to places called Antietam or Bull Run. But those soldiers also returned to Camp Randall. This time it wasn’t because of war; it was because of bureaucracy.
On April 9, 1865, Gen. Robert E. Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia at Appomattox, signaling the end of the war that would formally end two months later when surrender terms were signed.
In between, Union troops marched on the streets of Washington, D.C., in the two-day Grand Review on May 23-24. From there, Union troops went elsewhere, such as the 6th Infantry going to Louisville, Kentucky, to be released from federal service. They stayed there about a month and then had to return home to also be released from state service.
“They did the Grand Review and just assumed they were going home. But they didn’t,” Hampton said. “If you read the letters they say, ‘Well, it’s because some officer didn’t order enough discharge papers.’ They’re all writing and saying, ‘We just want to get home.’”
The 6th Wisconsin took a train from Kentucky to Madison, and was received Downtown at Capitol Park.
There was music and a speech from future governor Lucius Fairchild, who had been a colonel in the 2nd Wisconsin and lost an arm at Gettysburg.
The music will be recreated by the 1st Brigade Band, the Watertown-based Civil War-era band that plays songs from the period on vintage instruments.
Civil War re-enactors will be camping on the grounds this weekend, and the interaction with the public fits in with what happened at Camp Randall once the war ended. Soldiers needed somewhere to stay until they got the official OK to leave, so they returned to the place where most of them had trained.
“The 6th Wisconsin was here several days before they were fully mustered out,” Hampton said. “So they were waiting to get paid, they had visitors coming in to town. They wanted to talk to their family and friends and see them again. So there were several days where people were coming in and out of Camp Randall to interact with them.”
The war’s sesquicentennial has been a busy time for re-enactors. Hampton is president of the Second Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry, a re-enactment association. Members traveled to national and local re-enactments and commemorations, sometimes being part of re-enacted battles of 10,000 or more people.
“We did Bull Run. We did Antietam. We did the Wilderness. We did Gettysburg,” Hampton said. “We’ve done the big events over the years and now we come home.”
By war’s end, more than 80,000 soldiers served from a state that was 13 years old and had 775,000 residents when the war began. More than 12,000 were killed or died of disease. The state’s soldiers didn’t return all at once. One regiment, the 4th Cavalry, had been sent to Texas because the military was still needed along the Rio Grande.
They didn’t return home until June 1866, and returned to Camp Randall.
“I always felt bad for the 4th Wisconsin,” Hampton said.
Wisconsin’s last surviving Civil War soldier was Lansing Wilcox of Chippewa County, who died in 1951 at age 105. He was in the 4th Cavalry.
Monuments might be few and far between on the state level, but that’s because companies served as units from their communities. That’s part of why so many communities have monuments to the Civil War — to celebrate their own, who served together.
A century and a half later, the war continues to intrigue, and books about it continue to be published.
“There’s a lot that makes it fascinating,” Telzrow said. “There’s the military aspect that draws people, there are colorful personalities on both sides. There are great leaders, there are bad leaders.
“It’s the defining moment in the history of the republic, outside of the establishment of it. The nation is wrestling with the idea of ‘Are we going to stay a nation or are we going to be split in two?’ It was so momentous.”
[Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the date of the return program for the 6th Wisconsin Infantry Regiment.]